Friday, January 6, 2012

Project FeederWatch and Battle of the Squirrels

Bookwyrme (who has a fun spidery blog, btw) asks an excellent question: What is Project FeederWatch?

PFW is a citizen science program run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (when I was a kid, my dream workplace, until I realized I wasn't really cut out for either academia or emigrating) and Bird Studies Canada. For a small fee (which goes towards program upkeep) anyone with bird feeders can pick two days/week to identify and count the bird species and individuals that show up to eat, then report their findings. It runs from November - April every year. I've been wanting to participate since I was a kid. Now that I'm off for the winter and spend a lot of time nursing a baby, I figured I could do most of my nursing in front of the window and thus count birds while I do it.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I like counting things. I especially like reporting things I've counted and watching the statistics pile up. I have always kept half-assed track of the birds I see in the backyard, but it's interesting to keep a detailed record and see what's really going on.

Thus far this year I've seen ten species at the feeder during count days. I've actually seen thirteen, but none of the the white-throated sparrow, field sparrow, or my favourite red-breasted nuthatches have shown up on a count day so I can't report them (actually, all three disappeared right around the time the program started, perversely). Weekly we average about eight species and roughly twenty-three individuals. Juncos used to be the most numerous species, but they've really dropped over the past few weeks (this week I only saw three at one time) and goldfinches have picked up the slack, with a record nine individuals at one time yesterday. I have some regulars -- a trio of chickadees, a pair of cardinals, a downey woodpecker -- and some birds who I know are there but don't always show up on count days, like the white-breasted nuthatches and the blue jays.

The worst trouble I have is an escalating battle with the squirrels. On a bad day, the squirrels go through most of my seed and keep the birds away, and on a really bad day they can break feeders. The feeder in the foreground of the photo has been the most resilient -- the only feeder I've owned for more than three years that hasn't been busted by squirrels in one way or another. Last year's new, expensive feeder was broken and useless in a week. That was purchased after my "squirrel proof" feeder (which actually really was squirrel proof for most of the time it was up) finally bit it when they broke the roof to get in to the seed.

I don't dislike squirrels, exactly, destructive little bastards though they are. They're cute and fascinating to watch, and watching them trying to figure out the latest baffle system is really interesting. But I don't like that they fatten up on our seed while the birds, whom we buy the seed for, go hungry waiting for the squirrels to finish stuffing themselves.

Thus the escalation in tactics -- the suet feeder is benefitting from the latest baffle design, with a long chain covered by a PVC pipe on top of a Swiss Chalet take-out lid. The PVC is to prevent the squirrels from hanging on their hind feet on the chain, pulling the baffle up and snorfing down the suet by hunks. The feeder in the foreground will shortly benefit from the same treatment, though that won't stop the squirrels from leaping from the trellis onto the feeder from the side (this is truly amazing to watch). It's not about making the feeders completely squirrel proof, because I honestly don't believe there's such a thing. What we are trying to do is make the cost of getting the seed directly from the feeder higher than the cost of sitting under the feeders eating what falls when the birds eat. I'll let you know how that goes.

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